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| Curbing the consumer society – the role of environmental labelling

We know that the present levels of production and consumption in modern societies are unsustainable. If we are to seriously address this problem we will need to look at ways of improving the environmental performance of a broad range of products and services - throughout their life cycle. The DEEP project has examined the role of environmental product information schemes (EPIS) in supporting the development of the market for greener products within the context of an integrated product policy (IPP).

The flower symbol of the EU eco-label first introduced in 1992.
The flower symbol of the EU eco-label first introduced in 1992.
All products have some impact on the environment – whether at the manufacturing stage, through their use or from their disposal. The concept of an Integrated Product Policy (IPP), a major element of the EU’s Sixth Environmental Action Programme, seeks to minimise the environmental impacts of consumer products by looking at all phases of the product’s life-cycle and identifying where action would be most effective. The DEEP project, funded under the European Community’s Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development (EESD) programme (FP5), set out to evaluate the role of environmental product information schemes (EPIS) as one of the identified tools for promoting the development of more sustainable products within an IPP.

Mixed experiences

The overall aim of the project was to elaborate recommendations for an integrated approach to environmental labeling based on an assessment of experience with existing schemes, as well as on consumer perceptions of these schemes. The first step was to establish an overview of eco-labelling practices in Europe, identifying the types of schemes that exist and the products that they are applied to. The consortium of research institutions from four European countries (Germany, Norway, Italy and Spain) then looked more specifically at experience with EPIS in their own countries.

For the purposes of comparison, the case studies carried out were based on three specific product groups: tissue paper (non-recoverable consumer goods), washing machines (energy-consuming durable products), and tourist accommodation (complex services). “The choice of products allowed us to compare and contrast experiences in diverse products groups, each with their own specific challenges,” points out project coordinator, Dr. Frieder Rubik. Indeed, the DEEP project proposes a new, more detailed classification of products into six main product categories: non-recoverable consumable goods; recoverable consumable goods; energy-consuming durable products; and energy passive durable products; simple services; and complex services.

The consumer surveys carried out revealed a mixed picture - with dramatic differences in the levels of awareness of established eco-labels. There was a high level of awareness of the established national eco-labels in Norway (the White Swan – 70%) and Germany (the Blue Angel – 56.6%), but extremely low awareness in Italy and Spain. There was also very low consumer awareness overall of the EU Flower eco-label. “The surveys demonstrate the crucial importance of public information campaigns to launch these labels and increase awareness of them,” says Rubik. “The general public are key drivers in the process of improving product sustainability as they are a major factor in the growth of the market for environmentally-sound products. If labelling schemes are not reaching them, and influencing behaviour, then their impact will be minimal.”

What kind of EPIS for the future?

Based on the results of their case studies, consumer surveys and a series of workshops, DEEP attempted to respond to a number of key questions with regard to eco-labelling: Are EPIS an effective tool to promote more sustainable production and consumption patterns? What factors contribute to the success or failure of an EPIS? Are mandatory or voluntary labels more appropriate? Are eco-labels addressing the main environmental policy targets? Should labels be harmonised across the European Union? Are EPIS properly integrated into an effective IPP? 

“The ultimate aim of EPIS is to mobilise net environmental gains and reduce burdens on the environment,” states Rubik. “The path to these goals is, however, complex and dependent on a multitude of actors and stakeholders.”   One of the key achievements of the project was the elaboration of a ‘path-dependency model’ to assist policy makers in defining what type of EPIS is most suitable to achieve the environmental goals which have been identified for a particular product. ISO Type I eco-labels, such as the Blue Angel or the White Swan, may not be the most appropriate tool in every case. Although the focus of DEEP was primarily on business to consumer communication, some attention was also given to business to business communication, where more detailed environmental labels (ISO types II and III) may be a more appropriate tool – particularly if it is considered that it is the business community which will be the most likely to ‘drive’ a change in behaviour for that particular product category.

Defining the EPIS of the future

Major factors influencing the success or failure of a scheme are identified by the study. These include, for example, clear identification of the particular environmental impacts of a product or service which the scheme is seeking to influence, the identification of the key stakeholders able to influence change, and consumer understanding and awareness of the labels. “Identifying who is best able to influence behaviour for a specific product or service may be more complex than we first think,” points our Rubik. “For example, in the case of tourism, it is often the travel agent, rather than the provider of the service or the consumer, that has the greatest potential as a driver towards the development of eco-friendly services.”

DEEP has provided a valuable analysis of the role of EPIS and their potential as a tool within an integrated approach. The project has also proposed a screening system to assist policy makers in defining the most suitable EPIS for any particular situation and /or product category. This “path-dependency model” should make a valuable contribution to ensuring that EPIS are effectively used, with an overall IPP framework, to support sustainable production and foster innovation and the development of green products and services.

Related research themes


graphic element

Dr. Frieder Rubik
Institut für ökologische Wirtschaftsforschung (IOW)

The results of the DEEP project are presented in the book “The Future of Eco-labelling: Making Environmental Product Information Systems Effective”; ed. Frieder Rubik & Paolo Frankl; Greenleaf, London, 2005.